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What follows is not a complete theology of gender! It is deliberately and unashamedly focused on how we as Christians raise our children to promote gender equality.
This is perhaps the most sensitive of the three ‘sub-heading’ topics I’ve written after the seemingly controversial post about whether it was OK for my daughter to aspire to being a mum.
I decided it was wise to break that one down into the three areas I felt were potential sticking points: status, financial security, and now gender equality. And, let’s face it, most of us get more than a little bristly at the thought of women being expected to fulfil stereotyped roles, so it was no surprise that, at face value, my words were challenged.
But as Christian parents, how should we aspire to, and encourage, gender equality in our children? What is the basis of this equality? And what does it look like in practice?
Gender inequality is an outcome of the Fall
Sexism can work both ways, but as the issue usually involves the dominance of men over women, it is this that I’m going to focus on. And the fact that there has been such dominance throughout history should come as no surprise to any Bible-believing Christian:
To the woman he said,
“…Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”(Genesis 3:16)
In other words, gender inequality is not ‘just because’. It is a direct consequence of our sin. God designed us to live as equals, side by side, with a joint mission to accomplish (Genesis 2) but sin brought an inequality to the relationship between the genders that will never be resolved until the new heaven and new earth.
And this was not just a curse on women. The suppression of women throughout history will have undoubtedly lost the world a whole host of strong female political leaders, breakthrough female scientists, wise female strategists and inspiring female artists – it is men, as well as women, who have suffered this loss, and therefore the curse is felt by both women and men.
The curse of gender inequality will always be present in our world.
For every ‘win’ of the gender-equality movement, there are a handful of ‘new’ and discriminatory practices taking root in all corners of the globe.
Some are old practices recently brought to the attention of the media (FGM for example) – others are new.
Twenty years ago the pay gap between men and women may have been larger – but at least women didn’t have to worry about social media trolls and increased online sexism based on how they looked or what they believed in.
One demon is abolished, and another is birthed. It’s because, quite simply, gender inequality is a product of the Fall, a result of our sin – so, as long as humankind remains sinful, it will remain discriminatory.
The belief that gender inequality is part of living in a fallen world is both sobering and hopeful.
Just because discrimination will remain till the end of this life doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight against it.
On the contrary – because it is not of the Kingdom, therefore we do not subscribe to it. We have been saved, and life in the Kingdom starts NOW – so, just as we fight against poverty, war, racism, hatred and other results of the Fall, so we must also practise a different way when it comes to gender discrimination. We go about our lives as equals – and teach our children to do the same – challenging any discriminatory behaviour when we encounter it – not because of a secular feminist agenda, but because equality is a characteristic of God and His kingdom.
This is all well and good if it actually ‘works’ – but, of course, because we live in a gender-biased world, our children will be subject to all sorts of influences outside our control, and even we as ‘gender-aware’ parents probably imbibe some of the unhelpful gender-skewed culture around us without even realising.
So how do we remove our blinkers and start to teach our children God’s way when it comes to gender? Here are two important perspectives which have been important to me while thinking through this issue:
Firstly, godly feminism is about who we are – not what we achieve. And what we are is children of God, rooted in Christ. Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,for you are all one in Christ Jesus” – Gal 3:28.
Are we teaching our children that they are valuable, not because of gender or achievement or subversion of gender roles, but because they are made and loved by God?
Realistically, it is highly unlikely that my daughter will ‘just’ be a mum when she hits adulthood – real life usually demands a salary of some sort, and besides, I have every belief that God has given her the most incredible gifts to contribute to wider society, as well as her own children (should she have them).
But if my opinion of her is based on what she ‘achieves’ according to the world’s views, this doesn’t show her the God who loves her because of who she is. It also devalues the role of motherhood, every bit as important as fatherhood, and not something to campaign against just because there are ways in which some families and societies are ordered which do constitute a form of female suppression.
Nowadays, investing in motherhood can be a true feminist option: a ‘right’, a ‘choice’ that many have the freedom to make to whatever extent they like. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater – but, rather, let’s be willing to think creatively and boldly about family, work, vocation and the Kingdom of God. It may not look as we imagine.
Secondly, godly feminism is not about trying to get one over everybody else. Those of us who call ourselves Christians must resist a worldview of unhealthy competition and ladder-climbing.
The Bible’s teaching on equality is radically different: it is that, rather than compete with one another, we all submit to one another.
The problems come when this submission is not equal. The Biblical model is that women submit to men, men submit to women, and we all submit to Christ (Ephesians 5:21 says “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”.)
The world says we reach equality when we strive to equal the achievements or status of the opposite sex – but the Bible says we reach equality when we self-sacrificially serve each other’s needs.
Philippians 2:3-4 says, “Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” This – not aspiring to be better than everyone else, but serving each other’s needs – is how true equality is achieved, and will be achieved in the new heaven and new earth.
Are we teaching our children to respect others, of all genders and backgrounds? Are we teaching them to serve sacrificially and without reward? Are we teaching them not to think less of themselves, but rather to think of themselves less?
Valuable, yet humble
Drawing these perspectives together, we see that the Biblical model of gender equality is based on healthy amounts of self-worth and humility. A distortion of the former leads to oppression of others – a distortion of the latter leads to being oppressed by others. Neither results in equality.
As Christians, we have a unique basis for these two qualities.
We have self-worth through knowing that God made us, that He has entrusted us with caring for the world, that He so desperately wants a relationship with us that He sacrificed His only son in order that we could enjoy life with Him forever. We must be pretty valuable then!
We also have humility because, in light of these truths, we realise that our skills and knowledge, our passion and vision, are so small in comparison to the God who gave us life. And we are aware of all the ways in which we hurt this God, this ever-loving, slow-to-anger Father – how we don’t deserve to sit in His presence, yet are able to do so through grace alone. This humbles us!
How do we parent for gender equality?
So, in light of this, with regards to our parenting:
1) Let’s affirm our children’s self-worth as much as possible.
Christian parents, this is an easy job if you’re reading the Bible with your kids (here are some ways to do that), as there’s so much packed in there about our identity being in Christ. We are so totally precious and loved by God that our gender is not even a consideration when totting up our value.
When my kids do things that make me proud – winning ‘Star of the Week’ or getting full marks on a spelling test – I praise them, but always make a point of telling them that even if they were the worst behaved that week, or got 0 on their test, I would still love them just as much. It’s a little crass, and I always cringe as I say it, but I’d rather do crass than raise children who associate their value with their achievement.
Raise your girls AND your boys to be confident in the abilities God has given them. And raise your sons AND your daughters to honour the gifts God has given to the women and men around them.
2) Let’s model healthy mutual respect and submission to our children.
There is plenty of gender discrimination in the world and, sadly, in the church – but I think much of it stems from how women are seen and treated in their families. A woman who has a secure base – parents and/or a husband/partner who believe in her – will find it easier to overcome discriminatory obstacles in everyday life and in the workplace.
So if you’re married, model a positive relationship of mutual respect and division of labour – your children will model their future households on what they see in the one in which they’ve grown up. Show your children how they deserve to be treated – and show them to recognise signs of ill-treatment.
2) Let’s encourage humility in our kids when relating to others.
We often think that we need to raise our girls up to believe they can do anything – but it’s equally important to raise our boys to understand what it might mean for them to allow girls to do anything – a stepping aside, a demotion, a position which holds little ‘status’ in the world’s eyes.
Far from the arrogance and ladder-climbing we see in misogynistic cultures (and, occasionally, in some secular feminist writings too), teach your boys and your girls to follow Christ’s example, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…” (Philippians 2:6-7).
The most humble person in history was a man – Jesus Christ – and, if we look to him, we will find enough self-worth and humility to serve one another as equals. I relish the day when gender discrimination will be a thing of the past – but, for now, let’s be encouraged by the work of the Holy Spirit in us and our children, shaping us to be more like Jesus, who stood for equality right up to death.
For the first time in five years of writing this blog, I’ve received editorial help from another, so feel it only right that I should credit her here. Thank you, wonderful friend, for reading this through, for your gracious comments and wise alterations, and for articulating on my behalf where I was getting tangled in knots.
Encourage both your boys and girls to understand that God’s good plans for them are not dependant on their gender by buying them a copy of my children’s book, Deborah and Jael!